Everyone waited all season for the upstart Tampa Bay Rays to finally fall back to earth. Then in July, they got their wish. The Rays had won three straight games against the Kansas City Royals, but on July 7th, 2008, Dan Wheeler allowed back-to-back home runs to John Buck and Mike Aviles in the 10th inning as the Rays lost 7-4. It was a tough game, but the Rays still had taken 3 of 4 from Kansas City and held a 4-game lead in the AL East. However, it can be the things that seem the most innocuous that turn out to be where disasters start. The Yankees shut out the Rays 5-0 in their next game then got a Bobby Abreu walk-off double in their next game to send the Rays to their third straight loss. Things only got worse as the Rays moved on to Cleveland as the Indians beat them 13-2 in the first game and went on to sweep them in the 4-game series. The Rays had gone from 5 games up in the AL East to half a game back of the Boston Red Sox. The Rays had a nice run, but analysts everywhere were convinced that it was coming to an end. But they were wrong. The Rays’ 7-game losing streak turned out to be just a rough patch and nothing more as they rebounded to go 42-26 (.618) in their last 68 games to win the AL East. The rest of the season did not pass without its challenges–they had a 1-7 stretch against the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Red Sox in early September–but the Rays kept it together to finish off their unbelievable season. Can this year’s incarnation of the Rays do the same thing?
There’s a big difference between the 2013 Tampa Bay Rays and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays: there’s nothing miraculous about this team. This isn’t a last-place team suddenly bursting onto the scene for the feel-good story of the year–this is a team that everyone expected would be right in the mix. Instead of falling back down to earth, this team is simply struggling. The talent is here but the results just are not coming. So how does this team remedy that? How does it return to being the great team we thought we were seeing? The name of the game the rest of the way will be the mental aspect. This Rays team can’t let this tough stretch affect how they play the game. They can’t come up to with runners in scoring position pressing to push runs across after how many times they have failed. The starters can’t take the mound saying that if David Price couldn’t pitch well then they can’t either. If they do that, they’ll be just fine and the Indians, Orioles, and Yankees will be heading home along with everyone else. If they can’t, then we’re seeing a team none for having the best clubhouse presence in baseball lose their identity and implode spectacularly. This doesn’t have to be a collpase. But the losses keep piling up and this Rays team has to prove that they’re better than this before it’s too late.